A Full Symphony and Imaginative Twists Take The Nutcracker to Delightful New Heights

Bringing The Nutcracker to Life
Wynne Wrede

For many families, the holiday season brings with it a mix of cherished traditions and joyful surprises, from decorating the tree while re-watching It’s a Wonderful Life to seeing the wonder in a child’s eyes when they clamber on to Santa’s lap for the first time. While there are many classic Christmas movies, stories and songs, few are as beloved as The Nutcracker, the enchanting story of young Marie and her magical journey to the land of sweets with the nutcracker prince. Featuring exquisite ballet paired with Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, The Nutcracker is a signature production for dance companies around the world.

Thankfully, you don’t have to travel far to see a high-quality production of this classic show. For 10 years, Plymouth-based ballet company and teaching academy Metropolitan Ballet has mounted a full-scale production of The Nutcracker, complete with lavish costumes and scenery that includes a mix of professional and student dancers. The music is provided by a live symphony, the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Yuri Ivan.

Ivan, who has served as the associate conductor at The State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in the Ukraine and holds a doctorate in conducting from the University of Minnesota, became director of the community orchestra in 2007. That same year, Erik Sanborn, who had founded Metropolitan Ballet only a few years earlier, approached him with the idea for a collaboration.

“I had heard of the Kenwood Symphony and their reputation,” says Sanborn. “I wanted live music for The Nutcracker because the score is written for a big, full orchestra. In the Ukraine, the symphony, ballet and opera are all in one state-run company, so this was a good fit.”

Their first production, at the Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, was “huge and awkward,” Sanborn admits. “We didn’t have an overall plan. What I knew was limited, and since then I’ve learned the art of directing ballet. Now it’s evolved in to something I’m extremely proud of.”

Meticulous planning and organization are necessary to ensure that the show stays true to the impeccable choreography of the original, while continuous innovation keeps it fresh, with unique twists and surprises that keep audiences coming back year after year.

“Every year we reinvent a slice of the ballet,” Sanborn says. “No two Nutcrackers have been alike.”

The show typically includes upwards of 75 performers, most of whom are company dancers or professional local ballerinas, but a mix of guest artists from out-of-state and students from Metropolitan Ballet and Hopkins Youth Ballet also participate.

“I’m a strong believer in collaborating and working together to get a stronger result,” Sanborn says.

Rehearsals begin six weeks before opening night, with dancers rehearsing in groups for several hours each week. For those who dance multiple parts, that can mean several hours of rehearsal in a day. For dance student Ayla Jones, who has danced multiple roles in the last two productions of The Nutcracker, all that rehearsing is an opportunity to improve and grow as a dancer while having fun with her peers.

“Last year I was a rat, which had a lot of ballet aspects to it, but also more modern moves. I was also a Russian dancer, which is a lot of fun, a lot of jumping and spinning,” she says, noting that even if she plays the same part from year to year, “the part will have harder aspects to make it more advanced.”

“It’s really unique to have all these kids doing professional-level shows,” says Wynne Wrede, who has danced several roles in The Nutcracker over her four-and-a-half years as a student at Metropolitan Ballet. The show includes dancers as young as 4 dressed up as mice and cookies. Wrede says, “It’s a lot of fun working with the kids, and it’s so impressive how hard they are willing to work to make these shows successful.”

Students such as Jones and Wrede also get the chance to work with professional dancers from across the country as they prepare for The Nutcracker, something they both say is inspiring and challenging.

“Erik has professionals come in from all different places, and we get to talk to them and learn what it’s like to be a professional dancer,” says Wrede. The professionals often sit in on or teach classes in between rehearsals, giving the students an invaluable chance to get advice on everything from technique to career options from top performers.

The opportunity to perform onstage alongside professionals is incredibly exciting for aspiring ballerinas, says Haruna Asanuma, the ballet company’s administrative director. “It keeps them coming to class. Ballet can be difficult; it’s very demanding of your time and energy. But it’s also rewarding, and you gain discipline, poise and character.”

“The first time I did The Nutcracker it was scary,” says Jones. “But once I was out there I didn’t notice how many people were watching, and it was actually really fun.”

Behind the scenes, parent volunteers are an essential part of the show, acting as ushers, running the concession stand and facilitating rapid costume changes backstage. “We couldn’t do it without them,” says Asanuma.

“They try to get everyone involved and find something for them to do,” says Donna Jones, Ayla’s mom, who says she will volunteer to work during one performance and watch her daughter as an audience member the second night. “It’s got to be collaborative, otherwise it wouldn’t happen.”

“There is certainly lots to be done with every production,” says Linda Wutzke, mother of Wynne Wrede. Wutzke sewed her own prom dresses in high school, so she is often recruited to help tailor costumes. Even the Wutzkes’ dog has been a part of the show, playing the family dog in an early scene of The Nutcracker a couple of years ago. “It’s terribly fun and rewarding,” she says.

Some of the show’s costumes are made locally by a seamstress, but many of them are repurposed from other ballets or crafted by creative volunteers, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Over the last ten years, “the scenery and costumes have transformed from nothing to elegant and illustrious elements,” Sanborn says.

Though the music and the story of The Nutcracker are familiar to most of the audience members, mixing in a bit of the unexpected keeps the show from becoming stale or predictable. “I love surprises,” says Sanborn. “One of the things that has made this show so popular is that the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen.”

Past productions have included aerialists performing their gravity-defying feats from silk sheets suspended from the auditorium’s ceiling and special effects like snow falling on the audience during the ballet. An audience favorite is Blackjack, the scene-stealing live horse who pulls a carriage across the stage in Act I.

The real showstopper, Sanborn says, involves a giant pink replica of an Easy-Bake Oven (a stand-in for the character of Mother Ginger). “Two dozen kids get baked in this giant Easy-Bake Oven onstage and it’s hysterical. The magic oven turns them in to decorated sugar cookies.”

Sanborn is tightlipped about the surprises in store for audiences this year, but he says that four major scenes will undergo changes for this production. “You’ll have to come and see the surprises; we’ve got some good ones this year,” he says.

Though the fun twists that Metropolitan Ballet incorporates into its productions of The Nutcracker make for an exciting and unique viewing experience, the music and dancing are rooted in the much-loved original.

“The music is genius; if it weren’t for Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, there would be no such thing as The Nutcracker,” Sanborn says.

“The overture gets me the most,” Asanuma says. “When the curtain is still down and the orchestra starts to play that music, it’s so exciting. Christmas is just not complete without The Nutcracker.”

Dancing to a live orchestra is “slightly harder” than performing with recorded music, Ayla Jones admits, but “I like having it because the orchestra fills the room more than a recording ever will.”

“The part that I get nervous at is right before I go onstage,” says Wrede. “But as you go through the show you get a feel for the audience.” A great performance, she says, is not necessarily about having perfect technique, but about “making the audience feel like they want to get up on stage and dance with you.”